Libya seems to be sinking into civil war again: forces under the control of the Cyrenaica strongman General Khalifa Haftar have launched a military strike on Tripoli. The capital is held at the moment by militias supporting the Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj with UN backing.
Khalifa Haftar is probably aiming to enter the capital as the saviour of his country; he reckons the population is tired of chaos and will support him; he feels the militia leaders have full bellies and little appetite for fighting. There is not much ideology at stake: the militias offer little vision, apart perhaps from certain Salafist groups, “madhkalis” operating inside Haftar’s grouping, the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). The main motives are opportunistic, and that’s what Haftar is counting on: if he can display enough power he can deter the various armed groups in the capital from fighting him, or even get them onto his side. The General enjoys financial support from the UAE and probably from Saudi Arabia; he has military support from Russia, which has Wagner group mercenaries in Libya; but he also has political support from the French, and probably intelligence support, too. Haftar has followed his usual style: he offers talks, shakes hands, sits at the negotiating table. But his actions on the ground present the international community with a fait accompli. He knows perfectly well there are no real constraints on what he does. The United Nations and the international community provide none; beyond face-saving declarations, their support for Fayez al-Sarraj is feeble, barely more than formal. The United States has been a distant spectator of this crisis at least since Trump came to office. And as for the European Union, its latest communiqué doesn’t even mention Haftar by name, or lay the blame for the violent flare-up at his door: it merely calls on “all parties involved” to honour their agreements.
There are two constraints on Haftar: first, he does not have the overwhelming military force needed to take the capital by fighting; second, he cannot allow himself a blood-bath if he wants to preserve some legitimacy at home and abroad. The right time for his take-over has never quite come. He won’t find it easy to take the capital while the Misrata militia and others are willing to defend it. It took him years of fighting before he freed Benghazi, and he has already had losses just tackling Tripoli’s suburbs. His slow progress is at least showing him who he can count on and who’s ready to fight him. Negotiations in the shadows will continue; so will his propaganda presenting him as a “liberator” fighting terrorists. Over time he benefits from his support abroad and from the general climate of appeasement. He knows his credibility will depend on how he comes to power: that will affect everyone involved, in Libya and abroad, and could shift the balance of support.
Haftar’s military push is a mixture of daring unscrupulousness and calculated risk. He will probably have been comforted by the external support he has won in various meetings recently, and may think he has a green light to try for the capital. On 28 February al-Sarraj and Haftar met in Abu Dhabi and shook hands on a deal for elections before the year’s end. Since then, each of the two sides has met its international protectors: Sarraj was received in Doha by the Emir of Qatar, al-Thani, on 10 March and in Ankara by the Turkish President Erdogan on the 20th. Haftar had meetings in Riyadh on 27-28 March with King Salman of Saudi Arabia and his heir apparent Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. His object is to take the capital swiftly by getting some local militias to change sides. He aims to win the support of the population, but has been disappointed there. Now it would seem he can hardly retreat, because that would be too big a political set-back; but on the other hand he probably faces a more drawn-out fight, and the support (or mediation) of his international sponsors will be decisive. It remains to be seen whether one or two of the international protectors who have been encouraging him so far think better of giving such support. Then again, if the international community’s response to his offensive remains as flabby as it has been so far, Haftar might see room to continue his military action, possibly with greater obstinacy and more violence.
One last consideration: the General is 75 years old, and had a spell in a Paris hospital a year ago; he doesn’t seem to be in the best of health. Even if it looks as if he can win Tripoli soon, keep power in a Libya that lacks government institutions, and presumably bring the country some stability, how long is that stability likely to last?